Criminal sentencing and we make strange bedfellows.
When I say “we,” I certainly mean Americans. But today I am wondering about the view most Arizonans have of the length of time we commit people to the penitentiary.
What got me thinking about it was an odd case—or maybe I should say a commonplace case—out of Winslow, Ariz. There, a man committed felonious acts and was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.
Nothing surprising, so far. And yet that everyday occurrence led to a firestorm of publicity and shouts about over-sentencing.
In the January issue of Arizona Attorney Magazine, I wrote our cover story about Arizona’s sentencing regime. I examined the question of whether our state is likely to follow a national trend—even in “conservative” states—to re-examine the number of people we incarcerate and the length of time we imprison them. Based on the evidence and the opinions of lawmakers, sentencing reform is not in the offing.
And this week, the Arizona Republic is covering in detail the method of being granted clemency in this state. As today’s story says:
“Statistically, if you are convicted of a felony in Arizona, you are more likely to be struck by lightning than granted clemency by the governor. Excluding the cases of inmates nearing the end of a terminal illness, [Gov. Jan] Brewer is on track to grant the fewest clemency cases in more than two decades—even when a judge and unanimous board recommend a shorter sentence.
“Recent board members interviewed by The Arizona Republic believe clemency will be granted even less frequently in the future.”
The striking thing about all the coverage of sentencing and clemency is that it causes little to no upset among the typical resident. We are, after all, a law-and-order-state. But then this Norwegian fella drives on a Winslow sidewalk, where he aims for people—adults and children—for which he is handed a 7.5-year prison sentence. And people are angered.
I have been surprised at the number of people who mention the case to me, expressing shock and outrage at the sentence length and seeking my agreement.
But 7.5 years for trying to run people down doesn’t even come close to passing the sentencing-abomination test for me, especially in Arizona. Drive the wrong way down a one-way street, try to hit people with your car, and get sentenced severely? I’ll keep my box of outrage dry for now.
Perhaps we in Arizona are so familiar with all of our annual Midwestern visitors, many whose ancestors hale from Scandinavia. We know Norwegians, people think; they’re nice people. This must have been a misunderstanding, not road rage.
Such compassionate sensitivities do not seem to arise in the wake of lengthy sentences handed down every day for those who may not be Scandinavian.
Today in the Republic, the Navajo County Attorney shared his view of the case and people’s reaction to it. He says he was blindsided by the intense reaction to the sentence. And that reaction, he says, was based on a misunderstanding of the facts:
“[A]bandoning the facts … undermines our justice system, where facts are bedrock. And because justice underpins our quality of life, helping us feel safe in our homes and communities, facts absolutely need to be defended.”
You should read Brad Carlyon’s complete piece here.
And here’s hoping that the many who shook their fists in support of a road-rage-consumed Norwegian will similarly read the Republic’s solid coverage about a clemency process that is reported to be more Broadway show than due process.